The nominees for the 2016 Eisner Awards were recently announced, and as always, the list of nominees provides a serviceable list of some of the best comics currently in circulation, regardless of which ones actually win. Some of the nominated titles are well-known, and have been discussed here (like Sexcastle, which is up for Best Humour Publication, and Southern Bastards, nominated for Best Continuing Series), but many others I’m hearing about for the first time. One notable pattern in the Eisners, it should be pointed out, is an absence of titles from the big two (Marvel and DC) and superhero comics in general. There are a few big two titles that creep in, such as Marvel’s Silver Surfer (nominated for Best Continuing Series) and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (nominated for Best New Series), but for the most part the list of nominees honours comics from Image, BOOM!, Oni, Dark Horse, First Second and a score of smaller labels featuring innovative work from a diverse and growing comics industry.
Given that many of the titles on the list are new to this reviewer, and possibly to some of our readers, we’re going to be taking a look at some of the nominated titles in depth over the next few weeks. We’re starting with a book nominated for Best New Series, which made its debut in May of 2015: Dark Horse’s Harrow County.
Harrow County, by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook, is billed as a “horror/fantasy” book, and it certainly fulfills those genre expectations, but it does so in a way that’s so entertaining and dramatically compelling that fans of other genres should really give it a look. The tone of the book is what first strikes the new reader. It’s the sort of comic that knows exactly what kind of comic it is, and revels in the meta-narratives and tropes, resembling anything from the Whedon universe in its self-referentiality, not to mention being very light on its feet in terms of dialogue and characterization.
The story is set on an American farm straight out of the pages of 1930s Americana. This is a world where fathers are called “Pa” and it’s so quiet at night that the trees seem to be speaking. It’s a time when race mattered, but our young hero’s best friend could still be the African-American Bernice, the plucky granddaughter of a neighbor, who her Pa “doesn’t like for some reason”. Emmy, our hero, is a girl who lives with her father, and things seem to be going badly on the farm. Calfs and chickens are being born deformed, and Emmy herself is experiencing vivid dreams and hallucinations. Eighteen years prior to this, a “witch” named Hester Beck was put to death by the people of this community for causing general mayhem, and she vowed to return. Everyone old enough to remember Beck knows that her spirit was not killed by mob violence, and she will make her return someday — it’s only a question of when and how.
Tyler Crook channels Andrew Wyeth through the sensibilities of Swamp Thing to create a haunting, beautiful world for this story to take place in. His backgrounds are lush and detailed, emphasizing trees and all the mystery the kingdom of plants can provide. His skills as a character artist are well-tested by the demands of Cullen Bunn’s story, as it develops through the first arc (“Countless Haints”) and the second (“Twice Told”) (both currently available as TPB’s, although the series continues in its third arc at the moment).
The first story arc, “Countless Haints”, basically tips the series’ biggest card, which is (spoiler alert) that Emmy is indeed the reincarnation of the witch Hester Beck, and not only that, but everyone in her community was created by her magic, literally out of the mud surrounding her farm, and set loose upon the world to do her bidding. Although, some of her newly-created minions went astray and mistook themselves for real humans, rebelled and killed the witch. Her spirit passed to Emmy, where it still lives. Therefore, this world is really a strange and cockeyed version of that classic Twilight Zone conceit, in which one child controls the fate of every adult in her life, simply by the power of her will. Sure, there are other monsters in the forest (left over from Hester Beck’s previous life) and later we meet some powerful opposition from Emmy’s long-lost sister (she features in the second arc “Twice Told”), but the key dramatic arc all the way through Harrow County is Emmy’s struggle to understand her power, and her identity. It’s that main theme, combined with the richly realized characters (bonus pages show us how Crook and Bunn obsessed over such little notes as Bernice’s grandfather’s hat) that most evocatively recall Buffy or Angel. Except, set on a farm in the early 20th century.
The horror aspects of this comic are certainly there, and there are some genuinely creepy moments, but it’s all handled with such warmth that the edge is definitely taken off. For example, Emmy’s closest friend, her “familiar”, in fact, is the animated corpse of a young boy who had his skin removed by thorns. Emmy carries around his skin in her purse, or keeps it in a drawer, but the skinless corpse itself is her bulldog, and her protector. They have a cute relationship: at one point she lays out the skin on her bed and lies down beside it, chatting as one would with a close friend after school. The initial shock of the skinless corpse and the horrible sounds emerging from the skin’s rubbery lips soon fade into fascination with this character and his relationship with Emmy. The latest story arc, in fact, adds more shading and colour to this tortured character, revealing some of his pain and backstory. The most horrific of monsters in Harrow County are still heartbreakingly human.
It’s fairly obvious why Harrow County got its Eisner nod. It’s richly drawn, well-written, confident and effective storytelling, showing a rich and distinct imagination. Like all the Eisner nominees, this one deserves all the readership it can get.